Playing well together

Review: The hometown crowd might be partial to violinist Hilary Hahn, but it was appreciative of the fine performance of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, as well.

March 06, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When word got around that the Candlelight Concert Society would be presenting a performance by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center featuring violinist Hilary Hahn, the recital in Columbia suddenly became one of the hottest tickets in town. Not only was the Howard Community College's Smith Theatre filled to capacity, but there were many more who wanted in and simply couldn't obtain tickets.

It wasn't just that the Baltimore-born virtuoso was riding high in the wake of her recent Grammy nomination. Saturday night's concert was also something of a homecoming for Hahn, who regularly attended the Candlelight Concert Society's programs as a child.

Despite the audience's obvious favoritism, it wasn't as if the Lincoln Center folks played second fiddle to Hahn. Actually, it was the opposite way around in the second half of the program, which found Hahn playing second violin to Cho-Lian Lin's first in the Brahms String Sextet in G Major, a role she handled well but which offered scant opportunity for star turns.

But unlike recitals, chamber ensemble concerts are less about solos than about co-operation and interplay, and that was definitely the case with the Lincoln Center players.

The program opened with the Beethoven Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1 No. 3. As the opus number indicates, this is one of Beethoven's earliest works, and is much closer in character to the classical school of Mozart and Haydn than to the romanticism for which he was ultimately known.

It's also much more a piano piece than an ensemble work, as the violin and cello parts generally either comment on or contrast against the piano. Although Hahn's rich, warm tone and crisp, eloquent articulation was echoed by cellist Ronald Thomas, it was pianist Anne-Marie McDermott who carried the day. McDermott's lithe, elegant playing conveyed the spark of virtuosity without throwing the ensemble out of balance, bringing a gentle authority to the opening Allegro con brio, and a sly wit to the third movement's Menuetto.

Following the Beethoven was a piano trio of a different sort altogether, Scott Wheeler's Trio No. 2 for Violin, Cello and Piano, "Camera Dances." Composed in 1996 (and revised just last year), it doesn't fit neatly into any particular pigeonhole. It's harmonically unconventional, but basically tonal; melodically disjointed but with clear, recurring themes; rhythmically aggressive, yet shot through with lyricism. Although it didn't go down as easily as the Beethoven or the Brahms, it was anything but inaccessible.

It helped, of course, that Wheeler had such strong advocates in the Lincoln Center players. The ensemble -- McDermott, Lin and cellist Fred Sherry -- rendered the music's architecture clearly and passionately, bringing fire to the shifting accents and rhythmic anticipation of the first movement, and a gentler warmth to the near-conventional melodicism of the third movement. McDermott's playing was expressively percussive, at times evoking Bartok, at others Keith Jarrett, while Lin's bright, sweet tone brought a piquant sweetness to the final movement.

Lin took the lead in the program's final work, the Brahms Sextet. With Hahn, cellists Thomas and Sherry, and violists Paul Neubauer and Scott St. John rounding out the ensemble, it was clearly the evening's big number, and it definitely delivered the goods.

Although Lin, Thomas and Neubauer had the meatiest parts, the rendition was very much a team effort. Indeed, the repeating two-note accompaniment given St. John's second viola seemed to color the opening movement almost as much as the main theme, while the shifting interplay in the second movement allowed all six to shine. If only Lin's tone had more of the warmth and resonance with which Hahn has been blessed, as his crisp, resinous sound turned astringent in the more vigorous moments of the third movement.

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